Future materials isn't just a buzzword, it's an exciting field with developments that could very well spring great innovations for everything from building materials to clothing. In this article, we'll look at 9 interesting materials that could become commonplace in our lives. This list is far from exhaustive and in no particular order.
Feel free to add any suggestions you would like to see in the comments section.
Aerogel is pretty amazing stuff and actually holds records in the Guinness Book of Records. It's also sometimes referred to as "frozen smoke". This material is made up of supercritical dried liquid gels of alumina, chromia, tin oxide or carbon. Aerogel is 99.8% empty space making it semi-transparent. Ok, I know most things are actually empty space when you get to the atomic level, but you know what I mean! Aerogel is a great insulator, for instance, you can lay crayons on a piece of aerogel and heat from below with a blowtorch, guess what, they won't melt!
This material has an unbelievable surface area within their internal fractal structures. A cube with 2.54 cm dimension of this material has an equivalent internal surface area of an entire football field. With its very low density, Aerogel can be used in future military armor due to its insulating properties. Graphene aerogel, for instance, has a density lower than helium and is only twice that of hydrogen at 0.16 mg/cm3.
[Image source: JovanCormac via Wikimedia Commons]
Artificial Spider Silk
Spider silk is literally a natural wonder material, but it's proved difficult to synthesize. Many institutions have worked on the problem but a Japanese startup called Spiber may well have cracked it. They have managed to decode the gene responsible f0r fibroin production in spiders. This key protein is used to create the super strong strands of silk.
After cracking the key component, the company has gone on to develop bioengineered bacteria that will allow its mass production. They can even create a new type of silk in 10 days, from concept to final product. The bacteria are fed sugar, salt and other micronutrients to produce silk protein in return. Seems like a fair trade. This protein is then turned into a fine powder, spun and processed to create fibres, composites and in fact, anything. One single gram of fibroin can produce 9 km of silk!
Carbon nanotubes are long chains of carbon held together with sp2 bonds that are stronger than the sp3 bonds in diamonds! These remarkable structures have countless amazing properties. These include ballistic electron transport, great for electronics, as very high tensile strength making them a candidate for potential applications such as space elevators.
Carbon nanotubes have specific strengths of up to 48,000 kN.m/kg, stronger than most other materials known. High carbon steel, by way of example, is 154 kN.m/kg. Nanotubes are therefore around 300 times stronger than steel! You could build incredibly tall towers, perhaps kilometers high, with a material like this.
These materials are anything that gain their properties from their structure rather than composition. They have been used to create microwave "invisibility cloaks", 2D invisibility cloaks and other materials with unusual optical properties. Mother of pearl, for instance, is an example of a naturally occurring metamaterial that gives it its beautiful rainbow color. Some metamaterials even have negative refractive indices. This could allow them to be used to create "superlenses" that resolve features smaller than the wavelength of light! A technology called subwavelength imaging, a simple self-explanatory term, we like that.
Metamaterials could be used in phased array optics that would render perfect holograms on a 2D display. Pretty neat.
Amorphous metals, or metallic glasses, are basically metal with a disordered atomic structure. They can be up to twice the strength of steel. Owing to their structure, they can disperse impact energy very effectively, even more so than metal crystal. These materials are formed by quickly cooling molten metal before it has had time to align its crystal structure.
They could be used by the military for the next generation of armor but are currently used for armor piercing ammunition. They also have applications in electrical grids, notably amorphous metal transformers.
Metal foam is created from adding a foaming agent and powdered titanium hydride to molten aluminum which you then let cool. This process produces a very strong substance which is very light, it's 75-95% empty space after all. Owing to its high strength-to-weight ratio, metal foams have been proposed as potential construction materials for space colonies. Some of these metal foams can actually float in water which could mean they would have applications for floating cities.
Transparent alumina is around three times stronger than steel, plus it's transparent. This leads to a number of potential applications for this material. You could clad an entire skyscraper with it. Future skylines could look more like a series of floating black dots (for private rooms) rather than the monoliths of today. Its great strength could also mean it has applications as bullet proof glass.
Future clothing may not just be dictated by the fickle nature of fashion. They may well have integrated electronic textiles. Why carry a device when you can wear it? You could even project videos of choosing "onto" your clothing, made us think of the Teletubbies. What about making a video call through your wrist or palm (if you're wearing e-textile gloves). We may be able to integrate thought to speech interfaces with these textiles. The possibilities are nearly limitless.
Some of these materials can even "absorb" energy from their surroundings and from kinetic movement etc. Perhaps they could have applications for medical purposes like monitoring the wearer's health. Pretty neat.
Have you ever experienced the painful, often frustrating phenomena of sticking our fingers together with traditional super glue? Yes, it's annoying, but can you imagine one that bonds at the molecular level? Researchers at the University of Oxford have managed to create just such a glue. A solution inspired by nothing less than Streptococcus pyogenes, the flesh eating bacteria!
The team considered a single protein from the bacterium, namely the one it uses to bind to human cells. From this, they developed a glue which forms covalent bonds when it comes into contact with a partner protein. The bond is incredibly strong, when tested, the equipment used to measure its strength actually broke before the glue did! Now all that remains is to develop a means of incorporating the proteins into other structures in order to create insanely strong, selective glues!